How might a sustainable small press balance promoting fugitive individual projects and cultivating a long-lasting catalogue? How might a publisher’s personal attraction to what “breaks” within genre-defying manuscripts fit amid a broader cultural moment in which “the most interesting books now are almost exclusively in poetry, experimental fiction, and experimental prose”? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Stephen Motika, publisher of Nightboat Books. Over the past couple years, following Motika’s departure from his Artistic Director position at Poets House to take up full-time work on Nightboat, the press’s reach has increased significantly. Nightboat published 21 books in 2019. It recently established an office in Greenpoint (Brooklyn), expanded its staff to include Andrea Abi-Karam as publicist and member of the editorial board, developed an internship program, launched a new website, moved its distribution to Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, and further deepened its dedication to building community and connections (in countless ways) between writers and readers. During that quite busy stretch for the press, Motika and I gradually put together this retrospective conversation considering how Nightboat’s first decade now helps to shape its ever-evolving aims and ambitions.
ANDY FITCH: Could we start with some autobiographical tracings of how you arrived at Nightboat, and how it became clear that you would take on a central role with the press? Maybe we could track some of that timeline through the emergence of certain early Nightboat books — say by Leland Hickman, Douglas Martin, Bruce Boone.
STEPHEN MOTIKA: I was interested in book publishing from a young age, and I worked in bookstores growing up. I was lucky enough to live near a great independent bookstore in Los Angeles called Dutton’s, in Brentwood, and there was a famous bookseller…not famous, but a well-known poet and raconteur — a brilliant man named Scott Wannberg. He always made recommendations for new books, and gave me copies of his own books of poetry. As a teenager, I was more interested in genre fiction, which he also knew well. I never worked with him, but I continued to visit him until he left the bookstore due to ill health. He died soon after.
I went to college, and then went to something called the Radcliffe Publishing Course, which took place in Cambridge each summer. In my mind, its purpose is to help you figure out the elite world of big commercial publishing. They bring all these people from New York to give talks. You have drinks, and you participate in intensive workshops. There were one hundred of us in the program, all hoping to make it in a storied industry with few jobs and even fewer chances for sustainable careers. The course promoted and celebrated an old publishing model, something I thought I should be interested in.
Afterwards I worked at David R. Godine, the Boston publisher, for five months. He didn’t really have a role for me, and it was this kind of tortured part of my life because I didn’t have a clear place at his company — I just kept floating, trying to help. David was lively, smart, and idiosyncratic, but rarely in the Boston office. He spent most of his time in the Jaffrey (New Hampshire) warehouse. There was no real editorial work to do, because the books were backlogged for years, and I didn’t know the first thing about editing or acquisitions. I ended up working on sales and marketing, and even a little publicity. He had lost his Midwest reps, so I put together this trip where I met with five accounts a day. I did Omaha; Lawrence, Kansas; Kansas City; St. Louis; Louisville; Cincinnati; and Bloomington, Indiana.
This is bookstores?
Yeah. It’s an important link, because it was the sort of do-everything-yourself model that has been an important part of Nightboat. You don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do. Just go out there! Just go sell the books. David had a brilliant list, including translations of Georges Perec and other wonderful things. One early Godine book was Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, with beautiful photographs and letterpress cover. This was before David inherited Black Sparrow. Mark Polizzotti, a major translator from the French, who now directs the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s publication program, had just left Godine as editorial director. So there was this funny vacuum, with almost no one in the office. David was obsessed with the warehouse, being up in New Hampshire, packing books, picking up when the 800 number rang.
About two years after I left, Black Sparrow closed and sold their best-selling titles to HarperCollins’s Ecco imprint (books by Paul Bowles, Charles Bukowski, and John Fante). David bought the rest of the Black Sparrow titles for a dollar. For a few years David published titles that Black Sparrow had made commitments to. They’re now doing one or two Black Sparrow books a year.
So I was still looking for a real job in publishing. I called Lindy Hess, who ran the Radcliffe Publishing Course, and said: “I’m going to try New York. Would you help me?” I came for a round of interviews and didn’t get anything, but my resume got into the Simon & Schuster HR department, and they sent it to this senior S&S editor looking for an assistant. I got a call from this editor I’d never heard of, without even applying for the job. That editor now works for the UN, and left publishing years ago, but my year with her was really important for learning how the editorial and production process worked, figuring out how to make a book, understanding a bit more about copyediting and proofing.
So between the two (the sort of go-getter, “do it on your own” Godine style, which was very literary and kind of esoteric — and then the commercial, “but this is the way a book gets made” ABC’s of book publication of S&S), I had a good overview of publishing.
Then a couple years later, when I first worked at Poets House, Kazim Ali came to ask if I would help him launch Nightboat’s first book, a Fanny Howe reprint of The Lives of a Spirit, originally published by Sun & Moon, and now with the addendum Glasstown: Where Something Got Broken, which Fanny had sitting around in her drawer. I liked that combination of both a reprint and a new publication. We did a party and a launch, and it was fun. I kind of knew instantly on some level that I was going to be involved with the press.
Had you known Kazim before that?
No. I met Kazim through his partner, whom I had met years prior, through another person we both had mutually dated for a minute — in that small world of queer artists and writers. But after Fanny’s book launch, Kazim pretty quickly realized that I was interested and had capabilities. He needed help. So I came on in spring of 2006 as prose editor, and then acquired, I think, Nathanaël’s The Sorrow and the Fast of It. For Coach House I had edited Touch to Affliction, and I brought Nathanaël’s next book to Nightboat, and she was happy to have that happen. I’d known Douglas A. Martin, and he gave me his manuscript I think in ‘08.
I worked on getting out Radical Love: Five Novels by Fanny (which was a bear), while Kazim worked on Nightboat’s second poetry book, Joshua Kryah’s Glean. The Sorrow and the Fast of It appeared just a few months after I became publisher. Nightboat now was publishing two books a year, and we had four books in print. We had a lot of the institutional stuff set up. Kazim had done all the nonprofit work — with his background in nonprofits and political organizing. He felt comfortable in that institutional role, rather than the book-publishing side. Michael Wiegers of Copper Canyon told him that if you think you might want nonprofit status, then do it from the start, because it’s harder to do later. So Kazim figured that out. He set up a board. By the time I came on we already had a NYSCA grant and we had the prize set up, an important income stream.
But in a weird way, Kazim already had succeeded at what he’d wanted to do, which was to start this thing. And then my job was to take it to the next level, to figure out what it could become. I don’t remember all the details, but I think Kazim was on the fence about even continuing Nightboat as an independent press. He thought maybe it could become an imprint somewhere. He wondered how it could be sustained. I decided early to focus on getting us a bigger distributor, to quit the direct fulfillment to individuals, wholesalers, Amazon — which was so time-consuming.
Nobody should visit the post office that much.
Yeah, it started to become impossible. It took some time, but I moved us over to UPNE, University Press of New England, where we’ve been ever since. Some small presses, like Ugly Duckling, and Birds, LLC, have done really well with direct fulfillment, because you can keep more money — instead of getting just a fraction of the list price from the distributor. We just haven’t had the space or staff to do that.
And then I just got excited about stuff. The projects flowed in. I don’t think we accepted anything I wouldn’t take now, but it’s interesting to piece together how that all happened. At first we felt this push to mix new projects with reprint projects. The Hickman fit naturally for that. I got very involved with wanting to bring his book out. We also worked with Michael Burkard pretty early on. We reprinted Myung Mi Kim’s Dura and then Bruce Boone’s Century of Clouds. Nightboat had a particular interest in fugitive works from a period of the 70s — texts by queer authors, a few who died of AIDS. There was sort of a moment, which was part of my own reckoning: growing up in the age of AIDS, having felt there was this literature that I had missed, that had been absented, or that had absented itself. In the case of Hickman and Tim Dlugos, AIDS did that. For Bruce Boone it’s more complicated, but still involves a shift in cultural priorities and conversations. And then how do you make sense of what we might call a minor literature, or a regional literature, or something that starts in one specific place and then becomes part of a national conversation?
Could you describe your own discovery processes as a reader? We’ve discussed Hickman elsewhere, but what about Dlugos, Hervé Guibert — particularly given Nightboat’s conscious effort to publish writers who died too early of AIDS? Had Library of America not done Joe Brainard, I definitely would have suggested Bolinas Journal as fitting well amid your more fugitive projects. And the all-time-best reading experience for me happened with small-scale (both in terms of size and distribution) books that I had never heard of or known existed — at the New York Public Library 15 years ago. Did animating discoveries like that draw you to some of these people? Did you want to help other readers have such discoveries?
You mostly mean about the written part — not the physical book, right? Or both?
I mean reading experiences where you already needed to have taken 20 steps into an exploratory process before you even learned that a certain book existed, and then you found it, and then read it and noticed no one had checked it out in the past 30 years.
Yeah, I went to a David Trinidad reading at the Poetry Project, where David started with this amazing Dlugos poem, and said he was putting together a new volume. David said: “I kept thinking that people would come forward and want to do this work.” But 15 years after Tim’s death, no one had. David was really struck by that, and I was really struck by what David said, and I loved what he read. Afterwards I told him: “If you have a manuscript, I would love to look at it.” And it was just masterfully edited and arranged. And the poem “A Fast Life” was just…it’s like Brainard: there’s something in Dlugos, an innocence that disarms you. It’s both funny and quirky, and then incredibly moving. You don’t see that coming. And there was something so modest about what they did with their lives. Certainly Dlugos. He had one small book published in his lifetime. One book.
I don’t want to dwell on my own experiences, but I ended up at a Brainard event in the early 2000s, where most people read I Remember excerpts, or their own “I Remembers” or something, but David read a piece called “Some Train Notes” that Brainard wrote while high, riding back from Long Island one weekend. My whole dissertation came out of David’s reading. But now returning to your work with Nightboat: I’ve always sensed something like a dual identity at the press. I wonder if this goes back to you starting off as prose editor, and what it meant for Kazim to want a prose editor at that early point. One stream at Nightboat embraces hybrid, transgenre, transnational, art-inflected books. These include both forward-thinking texts and retrospective / reclamation editorial projects. A second Nightboat stream seems focused on perhaps re-articulating, realigning, refiguring lyric forms. Part of Nightboat’s distinctive value seems to have come from channeling both streams simultaneously. I’ve also noted, while talking to so many Nightboat authors, that each stream reads and appreciates the other. Do certain interpersonal or curatorial decisions stand out as shaping that long-term trajectory for the press?
Well there’s definitely an oscillation between my interests and Kazim’s. Although I’ve acquired more books than he has, he’s done some really important titles, and he’s been consistently active. The Fanny Howe books for example were important for us. If I’d come into Nightboat, and there had just been a few books of poetry, I think, strangely, that would have been less of a grab for me. There was something about that prose, especially at that time in my life, when I was really in a space between prose and poetry. I was really interested in intergenre writing, or what Fanny Howe did in that first book, what Nathanaël was doing, what Douglas A. Martin was doing.
My Poets House work focused of course on poetry and poets. At Nightboat, I could engage with different kinds of writing. Poets House pushed me to think expansively about poetry, and Nightboat furthered that thinking. Poetry wasn’t where I had first started, but ended up being the key to my involvement in literature — both as a writer and publisher. I think Kazim has always had a real love for, gift for, passion for, ear for, and vision for the lyric poem and a collection of lyric poems. Pretty much every book we’ve published that falls under that category is something he’s brought in or been part of.
I also know that, as a reader / editor / publisher / poet yourself, the slightly messy (the demonstratively, emphatically, problematically personal, emotional, embodied) presence of an author like Hickman appeals to you. And I think Jill Magi told me you wanted her book a bit messier. It seems that you pursue these attractions to the rough and the resistant-to-closure, but alongside the meticulous cultivation of Nightboat’s elegant catalogue. So did something sprawling and potentially unsustainable-seeming about Nightboat at first help draw you in? And as the press keeps pushing forward, how have you sought to maintain both this polished, professional finish and this rougher, rangier sensibility?
Right, I’m not sure that was there at first. I think I brought it. Maybe the same thing would have happened if I hadn’t appeared, but I think my meeting Kazim created a productive tension between something more closed and / or lyric, and something rougher and more open. The thing about Nightboat, and my relationship with Kazim, and the way Kazim is, is that once he let me in, he was supportive 100% — and ever since I became publisher, he has always deferred to my publishing decisions. He has done his thing, which has been great, but he has never asked me to defend any choices. I could do whatever I wanted, and I just did it. Some of those projects (both his and mine) have been great hits, and some have been more modest. But it’s like having your own imprint at a press. In this way Nightboat hasn’t felt like a particularly conceptual project. We just needed to populate and to fill out our lists, to grow something that was nascent and emergent — and for me to figure out how to publish books in my own way, after having this deferment. I tried a few times and was rejected from book publishing, and I was like “I’m done!” And then it came back in this other way, first with me as a volunteer and unpaid, not working for anybody, being largely my own agent. That allowed this space and these conditions and these publications to happen the way they did. It’s interesting though: I don’t know if I would consider any of our books rough or unfinished.
I mean, of course, deliberately so — preserving a freshness through the entire editorial process.
I think that’s true. I get impatient with most poetry collections. I’m often attracted to work that has something else to trouble or complicate that progression. There’s a trip, or a tonal change. Something major will break within. I’m drawn to the breaking. I’m drawn to the process. I’m drawn to books that are records of that process, archives of that process.
It also seems important to Nightboat’s identity to facilitate each author’s particular vision for a book. For a lot of presses, that idealistic aspiration soon gives way to more practical concerns. They simply can’t (or don’t) follow through on this commitment. So could you give some favorite examples of having translated an author’s vision into a finished print book — perhaps a book that could have floundered, or not fully realized itself, in less accommodating circumstances?
Well in terms of the making of a project, working with Caroline Bergvall has been really exciting and fulfilling, especially putting together Meddle English, figuring out what that book should be. I loved Caroline’s work, but I also thought she’d been under-published. She had this fugitive book from Krupskaya, and then she had a digital book from Salt. The first had gone out of print, and the second was this print-on-demand thing from Amazon. So nothing she had then really felt like a book. So I was like: “Let’s get your work into book form and really do it right.” And she took to that. She was interested in the visual aspects, the material aspects, the size. Her second Nightboat book, Drift, became almost an artist’s book, with this incredible inclusion of her art in interleaving sections. All those layers became part of it. Drift was really fun again in terms of figuring out what a book could be. Caroline was amazingly open to suggestions. And the manuscripts weren’t fixed — both stayed in-process as we developed the books. I loved that.
Editorially, for a few books I’ve said: “This needs major revision,” or “This needs another pass.” Certainly for Jill’s book I didn’t want it to become too clean and lose the story of its making, which I really love about it. But she had a lot of visual art in one of the earlier drafts. And I just was like: “Let’s get rid of all this.” It just distracted from the power of the text. Or you know, sometimes a manuscript feels too short or too long, or you need to move certain sections. You need to interpolate the various parts for different registers. Or you notice somebody has a bad tic. They keep repeating some kind of thing which drives you crazy. It’s like: “C’mon.”
How about, amid this interpersonal history of the press, adding a trajectory of designers?
Tim Roberts comes to mind, Margaret Tedesco, HR Hegnauer of course. Do you associate particular phases of the press with some of these individuals? Do certain exemplary projects stand out from your work with them? How and when have you seen your role as helping to facilitate your designer’s vision?
So Tim Roberts designed the first four books, and then he and Julie Carr had started Counterpath, and he really needed to shift his design energies to Counterpath. Cris Mattison became our designer, and I loved working with him. He did some of my favorite covers: Nathanaël’s Absent Where As, the reprint of Myung’s Dura, Poetic Intention by Édouard Glissant — really beautiful. But then Cris moved to Hong Kong, and couldn’t do our jobs anymore. For several years now we’ve worked with HR and Margaret. Mary Austin Speaker has done maybe three books, and Jeff Clark has done a few.
Every designer has his or her strengths. HR is incredibly good at dealing with complicated projects. With big books like the Dlugos she’s just been incredible, with hundreds of corrections, over hundreds of pages — just masterful. Margaret’s amazing at finding original works of art by artists she knows through her gallery and her networks, and hooking up authors and artists. She sourced the cover for John Sakkis’s The Islands. Etel Adnan’s Night cover has a wonderful Colter Jacobsen image. Margaret’s really good at visualizing how to present a particular book, especially through its covers.
The most amazing designers can respond and work with you. That takes a discipline, a practice. They almost always work by themselves from home. We’ve had a couple projects with designers not used to small presses, or not responsive, which just turned into a nightmare — because designers can get too invested in something. If you don’t like their idea, they need to just move on. All of our books do involve, as you said, extensive collaboration by Nightboat, the designer, the author. Some other presses, like Canarium or The Song Cave or Letter Machine, have decided on this one design through which each book flows. They have this look, maybe all with the same trim. But our books each look quite different, and need to fit the author’s and the project’s sensibility — and the story of the making. We do things for authors that other presses wouldn’t do. We give them a lot. We have that to offer. A lot of our authors tell us that other presses they’ve worked with have been kind of indifferent to the physical look of their titles. They’ll tell us: “Oh it went okay. They gave me three cover ideas and I had to convince them not to do this awful crazy thing, and then I was just relieved, and didn’t care.” You hear stories like that a lot. We always say we want them to love their book and to adore how it looks.
You described Caroline’s work as previously under-published. Another curatorial stream in Nightboat’s catalogue seems to focus on well-respected women poets who have been under-published or under-recognized somehow, at least for parts of their career. Definitely Fanny and Etel stand out — both well-recognized now, but not necessarily for the types of publications that Nightboat has showcased. And I also think of Kathleen Fraser, Susan Gevirtz, Laura Moriarty, Gail Scott. Have you consciously pursued some sort of gender-inflected recalibration for some of these mid-career authors?
Oh absolutely. That’s definitely an interest and commitment of mine. I brought in Caroline and Kathleen. Kazim and I both have worked with Etel. Laura Moriarty was Kazim’s brilliant choice. He just loves the books we’ve done of hers. Feminist work and writing by women are part of the story of what we do, what we make visible and present.
From my own reading, Etel and Nathanaël stand out as individual authors Nightboat has championed as a press priority — and of course you basically published seven Fanny Howe manuscripts before that. Did Kazim’s work with Fanny set a precedent for how to work with Etel and Nathanaël?
For Etel, Sea and Fog first came to us. Kazim acquired that. And originally, we planned on To Look at the Sea Is to Become What One Is as a modest selected poems, or a reader. We envisioned something more like 300 pages. But then Kazim asked Etel who she wanted to edit it, and perhaps that was the beginning of the end for a small book, because she wanted Brandon Shimoda and then Thom Donovan, and they pursued this almost mythic labor to compile the stuff they found.
Etel represents something very important for the press. She’s Lebanese, born to a Turkish father and a Greek mother. She grows up in Beirut, then comes to the US in the 50s to study philosophy at Berkeley, but a central part of her public identity comes through poetry (American poetry, poetry in English), and through painting in the Bay Area, with the Bay Area’s physical environment impressing itself upon her, through those paintings of the mountains, of Mount Tamalpais, where she lived for years. But then she also returns to the Middle East and to Europe. She continually reinvents this global practice of being an inside-outsider, an outside-insider. In the US people might think of her as “the Lebanese Francophone artist and poet.” But elsewhere, people might think of her as an American poet from Lebanon. There are always these conflicting pieces, and something about her work always feels outside any one nation, or even any one language — certainly outside any one genre.
And Nathanaël, for me, also represents being outside. Born Canadian, she has lived in the US for almost 15 years, as a native French speaker, translating back and forth, writing equally in English and French, resistant to any categorization. Both Etel’s and Nathanaël’s work feels inspired by a certain French style. Even though there’s a lot of normative writing in France, I think there’s a little less pressure on what a novel looks like, or what literature looks like. There’s also a little more room to create things between, which you see in both of their works.
We’ve published more of Nathanaël’s books than anyone else’s. She was definitely in on the ground floor of the press, and some of those early books really live on in a passionate, necessary way. For a long time, she also was involved in every single translation we did. She has really been a driving force on that. She has been the driving force.
How about if we discuss a bit anthologies and translation projects — both your broader curatorial aims, and the lived histories of individuals proposing books you perhaps never would have anticipated, but that now seem particularly fitting for Nightboat?
Anthologies are hard, expensive, often tiring. They require dealing with a lot of personalities. But there’s also of course something really inspiring about this platform for bringing together different voices and positions, and creating a public context for the work. Troubling the Line and the )((ECO (LANG) (UAGE (READER)) both stand out. Both projects had been in-process for a while and needed a publisher. Both books needed someone like Nightboat to get involved and get them out into the world. The )((ECO (LANG) (UAGE (READER)) was co-published with Brenda Iijima’s Portable Press, but we basically have done all the production work, the printing, and the distribution. Troubling the Line, when Trace first brought it to me, was supposed to be a co-publication with EOAGH, but I convinced Trace and TC to let it be a Nightboat book — so that they could be editors without also being the publishers. And those two projects still really stand up. I don’t think anything has replaced them. They’re still valuable documents and gathering places: very important sites for readers, students, communities, activists.
It’s difficult to publish a focused anthology and then to keep it current. I’m much more drawn to projects that gather up material that had been fugitive, or really set up a platform that doesn’t yet exist.
In terms of focused communities, and even though you worked for a long time at Poets House (a New York-based perch), I also long have sensed a broader bicoastal presence for Nightboat than for many presses. We’ve discussed L.A. elsewhere, but I also think of George Albon, Kathleen Fraser, Susan Gevirtz, Bruce Boone, Etel Adnan, Rob Halpern, John Sakkis all expanding Nightboat’s national range.
It was very important for me from the beginning to have that Bay Area presence. I had this love affair with the Bay Area, as a place of poetry and poetics. I discovered it in an indirect way, and that just opened a door for me. I’m not talking about the limited politics (I’m not talking about its dark side). I’m talking about this beautiful place that told a story, and that wasn’t New York, and that has played a really important part for certain experimental American poetic traditions for three or four generations.
I do now question my adoration for all of that. I consider this part of my coming of age. They were people that I needed. When you come up (like with Brainard for you), you need to find the right people / poets, where there’s an access point and there’s also open space for you to encounter the work. I was discovering Kathleen, Etel, Robin Blaser, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Leslie Scalapino, Bob Kaufman.
And even the library collection that Poets House inherited from our elders was such an East Coast collection and so narrative, lyric, traditional. Something about New York had depressed me when I worked for Simon & Schuster. I just felt misdirected. I didn’t fully sense this whole other story of St. Mark’s and secret locations on the Lower East Side. When I studied poetry in college, the most recent experimental writers we really looked at were the modernists. So the Bay Area became really important for my own maturity, awareness, and feeling close — feeling that I had this community, and that I came from a place that had a real poetic richness.
In terms of place, Nightboat’s connections to upstate New York’s Callicoon, but also to New York City’s Callicoon Fine Arts, seem to shape another press trajectory, especially as texts and broader public engagements by Caroline, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Bhanu Kapil overlap with performance and conceptual and artistic practices. How have Nightboat-Callicoon collaborations enhanced and / or made manifest your sense of poetry’s place amid or alongside contemporary art forms, discourses, conversations?
Nightboat spent a year (from 2008 to ‘09) in the old Fence office on East 8th Street, which is part of Segue Foundation. It was very far east, between Avenues B and C — just a dark, dank space, and we didn’t have the money to make it work. So we moved to Callicoon, where Nightboat shared space with Callicoon Fine Arts, my partner’s gallery. I had a large office and a book room. We went pretty much every weekend. It was a grounding place. I had a couple interns there, and that’s really when I got some things organized.
Then after two years in that space, my partner moved Callicoon Fine Arts to the Lower East Side, and for a long time after that we didn’t really have a Nightboat office. That all just changed again last year. But we did have that really important moment of collaboration with the gallery. Callicoon showed Etel’s paintings. Callicoon showed Guibert’s photographs. Callicoon did a show of Caroline’s. It was a really nice collaborative frequency and a lot of fun for me, with helpful frameworks in terms of organization, of getting press, getting some attention.
Finally, since you’ve mentioned the office and the financial picture, Nightboat leaves intriguing clues about how the press sustains itself. Often, at the back of books, a family member of yours might get thanked. Kazim often gets thanked. Or, say, a Weinert will get thanked, but not necessarily Jonathan Weinert, not for Jonathan’s own book. Do you want to say anything about such contributions to the press, and / or staying afloat in general? Or we also could pivot to a related topic: almost everybody I’ve talked to for these Nightboat conversations expresses amazement at Nightboat’s recent growth, just in the past few years, putting out dozens of books. So we could discuss the ongoing financial drudgery, and / or this sudden bright future, or how those two aspects relate to each other.
We have a very lean operation. I volunteer. Kazim volunteers. For a long time, we only had one paid position — Lindsey Boldt, who does a terrific job with everything. We survive on some individual gifts. We get grants from the NEA and NYSCA. We get some funding through the CLMP council. We have a prize. We collect reading fees. And we sell books. That’s how we do it. But it’s always a challenge as a nonprofit, and it’s safe to say that in our next 10 years (we recently passed 10, so for the second 10) we’ll definitely want to shore up some of the backend. That’s the unglamorous part, for us and a lot of presses. Often as presses get a little old (like Four Way Books, Ugly Duckling, Omnidawn), the story of their second decade starts with: “Okay, we made it. We’re publishing great work that people are purchasing, and caring about. Now how do we make this sustainable?”
That can be exciting, because every new publication has a different identity, and now we’re in a better position to promote each title’s specific identity. So another part of figuring out our future involves looking to other publishers to see how they’ve matured. In the case of Graywolf, Coffee House, and Copper Canyon, their founders have either passed on or retired, and the current leadership comes from a second or third generation — so always evolving, but they’ve found ways to make it work.
Also the most interesting books now are almost exclusively in poetry, experimental fiction, and experimental prose, and are published by nonprofit presses. We’re part of that story, and really happy to be engaged with that work. It would be great if we all could find more funding for literature at the national level. It would be nice if more foundations supported us and other presses, and more money could come back through book sales. People might shy away from spending $15.95 on a book of poetry. But after we pay bookstores, or shipping costs, or the distributor, we get just a few dollars from the sale. And this is after we’ve spent significant funds producing offset editions for each of our titles. I don’t think most readers really understand how hard it is to make money in books.